For many, a smart city begins with technology. In Japan, it starts with a person.
In local lore “customer is god,” and the customers of any city are its people. In the Japanese sense, being smart when approaching city planning and development means finding ways for “customers” to have a better quality of life, healthier communities and strong regional values. Being smart is about directing future advances in ICT toward ever-changing social needs.
“In some countries, a smart city is all about improving industry or transportation,” said Dr. Atsushi Deguchi, a Professor at Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, The University of Tokyo. “In Japan, it’s about how to solve specific social issues and improve quality of life for the citizens.”
Like elsewhere, Japan’s issues include overcrowding and congestion in cities, and a decline in rural populations. This makes it tough to maintain transport and other public services in remote areas. Meanwhile, young people gravitate to cities for jobs and the circle repeats.
On top of this, Japan faces its own special situation: the country is a global leader in super-aging, with one in five citizens already a septuagenarian. That ratio is even more stark in rural areas.
The solution, as Japan envisions it, is to combine the best of today’s technology with a united social front. In other words, an organ that connects all stakeholders of a community (i.e. business, government, academia, and local citizens) in order to create, test, and distribute solutions that balance economic development with social improvement.
As Prof. Deguchi explains: It’s marrying our human strengths in the real world, which come from collaboration, with possibilities that technology is opening up in digital, cyber space. This two-prong approach lies at the heart of the government’s flagship Society 5.0 vision to steer Japan toward its next economic and social iteration.
“Diversity means making a city livable for all people, including the aged. We believe it will make for a sustainable society,” said Prof. Deguchi.
Professor Atsushi Deguchi of The University of Tokyo, one of the leading voices in the Kashiwa-no-ha project, presents Japan’s smart city approach at an industry conference in Atlanta in 2019.
Reading the Oak Leaves in the Master Plan for a Clear Future Vision
As part of the broader Society 5.0 vision, Japan has 229 smart city projects in 157 areas. One of the key projects lies a 30-minute train ride from Tokyo, near Kashiwa City.
At the start of the century, a 273-hectare site dubbed Kashiwa-no-ha (“Oak Leaves”) became available for development. The idea was simple: create a compact new community to help unload the congested capital, while finding ways to make it more than just an easy-access, affordable sleeper town.
The city builders, Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd., however, set themselves a bigger mission. “From the first, we wanted this to be a place for innovation,” said Kazunori Yamashita, Managing Officer and GM of Kashiwa-no-ha Urban Planning and Development at Mitsui Fudosan.
Once the land was connected to an express train route, putting Tokyo center within reach, the developers attracted some of the brightest academic minds to set up facilities in the area. The University of Tokyo Kashiwa Campus, Chiba University Kashiwano-ha Campus, and the National Cancer Center Hospital East, are just some of the institutions among the “Kashiwa-no-ha (Oak Leaves)”.
The academic infusion was coupled with the creation of Urban Design Center Kashiwa-no-ha (UDCK), a consortium organ to coordinate the city’s development and focus it on finding and implementing innovative solutions to local issues. From the start, public, private, and academic partners (PPAP) were joined at the table, literally, by local residents via monthly city planning meetings.
The project was designed with a long-term, multi-decade “master plan,” and everything the city has done since then has flowed from that, Mr. Yamashita said.
Kazunori Yamashita, Managing Officer and GM, and Kaori Nishibayashi, project leader, at the Kashiwa-no-ha Urban Planning and Development of Mitsui Fudosan. The two say Japan’s smart cities are long-term experiments that open a window into the future.
Since its genesis in 2001, Kashiwa-no-ha has tackled ways to improve citizen’s health and set up one of Japan’s biggest co-working areas (Kashiwa-no-ha Open Innovation Lab, or KOIL) to stimulate idea exchange among entrepreneurs and professionals.
One of its biggest achievements was in energy conservation. A 2011 earthquake in northern Japan led to a blackout locally for a couple of days. This prompted Mitsui Fudosan to look at energy solutions and led to the creation of an integrated power distribution system in Kashiwa-no-ha that allows residential buildings, manufacturing and public facilities to support each other’s electricity needs.
The result is a system that can run on 60% of normal power for 3 days in an emergency and move power supply within the city based on local demand via a central control hub. Also, energy use in central blocks of Kashiwa-no-ha was cut by 26%. In late 2016, the smart city became the first Japanese project to win LEED-ND1 Platinum certification, the highest international standard for ecological and sustainable neighborhood development. What’s more, the city is among the largest Platinum-certified projects in the world by land space.
Left: a model of Japan’s Kashiwa-no-ha smart city. Right: the city’s Smart Center, which matches power demand and supply from individual buildings to cut energy use, allowing Kashiwa-no-ha to go 3 days without additional supply in case of emergency.
“In Japan we start by forming the core organization and a master-plan. It’s a little slower to get things going, perhaps, but the fact that everyone is involved makes it more sustainable,” Prof. Deguchi said. Academics form an anchor role, keeping the vision and knowledge of the project alive in line with the long-term plan, as agreed to by all stakeholders.
The existence of a master plan does not prevent flexibility. UDCK is open to “any kind” of collaboration, the professor said. In fact, Kashiwa-no-ha started hosting annually Japan’s Asian Entrepreneurship Award (AEA) in 2012 to make the smart city more international.
Recently, winners of the award are being invited to test their business ideas on the ground at Kashiwa-no-ha, especially in the fields of AI/ IoT and Medical/Healthcare. AEA encourages collaboration between the public, private, and academic sectors, forming an ecosystem of innovation in Asia, said Kaori Nishibayashi, project leader in Kashiwa-no-ha Urban Planning and Development at Mitsui Fudosan.
Solving City Traffic and Inclusive Mobility Issues by Re-Thinking Goal of Transport
When it comes to considering next-generation mobility, one place in Japan taking the lead is Maebashi City.
A city of about 336,200 people a few hours train-ride from Tokyo, Maebashi is Japan’s most car-dependent locality with 0.67 vehicles per citizen. As the population ages, this poses problems since older residents don’t wish to give up their driving license for fear of a loss of independence. This raises road risk.
The city has embarked on an economic project called the “Smart Mobility Challenge,” aimed at creating an urban traffic environment where all citizens can move freely.
The project began with the idea of improving existing public transport, but has evolved into a much bigger initiative to re-think why people travel at all. Now, the city is one of a select number in Japan starting to pioneer Mobility as a Service (MaaS), which seeks to integrate local buses, trains, taxis and other modes of transport into a single on-demand app.
With traffic planning firm Jorudan, data analysis firm NTT Data, telecom giant NTT DoCoMo and its partner in AI bus services, Mirai Share, signed up to the task, alongside 6 local bus firms, 10 local taxi firms, and rail operators, the MaaS project aims in stages to capture in digital format all traffic flow in the Maebashi area. Then, over the next 3-5 years, the various mobility options will be synced and organized inside the MaaS platform.
Japan’s leading autonomous driving research hub is the Center for Research on Adoption of NextGen Transportation Systems (CRANTS), part of Gunma University’s campus in Maebashi City. CRANTS has a fleet of 18 self-driving test vehicles.
For the user, this means that upon selecting a destination the app will compose the best multi-transport route and accept payment for all parts of the travel as one transaction. The app is expected to cut through the complexity of traffic routes while resolving congestion.
Not forgetting the issue of the elderly, technological solutions could also be applied to the local transport mix. The city is looking at bringing in self-driving vehicles to act as “last-mile” solutions, connecting people’s homes and public transport stops, said Seiichi Hosoya, head of Transport Policy at Maebashi City. This would also help ease the local bus driver shortage.
But, that’s not where the Maebashi City vision ends.
“If someone needs to go to a hospital, then the app may in the future act as a platform to book that appointment. Or, if someone wants to go to the cinema, you might be able to buy a movie ticket as well as transportation to the place,” Hosoya said.
To enact the master vision, Maebashi has its own organizational consortium. It includes the local Gunma University, transport firm Nippon Chuo Bus, and city authorities, which take on key coordinating functions, moderators between business, academia, and public services such as police, road workers, and others.
Even commercial facility managers and advertising firms are getting involved in this grand mobility vision and planning for a city of the future.
Once we have vehicles running autonomously, many more parts of a city need to adapt, said Associate Professor Takeki Ogitsu at Gunma University. Even things like taxi ads, or bus fares will need to be redesigned. “So, we are working with a lot of different stakeholders, even those that at first glance do not seem to be related to autonomous driving.”
Left: Seiichi Hosoya, head of Transport Policy at Maebashi City, is creating a seamless traffic environment connecting multiple transport options; Right: Associate Professor Takeki Ogitsu at Gunma University is also deputy director of CRANTS.
Of course, this momentous effort would not work without technology. Gunma University has set up on its grounds one of the most elite autonomous driving centers in the world. The Center for Research on Adoption of NextGen Transportation Systems (CRANTS), where Prof. Ogitsu is a deputy director, boasts a fleet of 18 self-driving test vehicles, including buses, trucks and a taxi, as well as a 360-degree, 3D driving simulator, a remote-control facility room and, at 6,000 square meters, one of the world’s largest designated test courses.
Japan’s largest car-makers and technology firms are involved in both autonomous driving and data collection, dissemination and analysis.
Still, Prof. Ogitsu notes that the goal of the project remains to help people. “Autonomous driving or AI isn’t supposed to take away people’s jobs. It’s there to make the human aspects of people’s work that much more appreciated.”
Merging Physical and Cyber Space into Human-Centric Society 5.0 Smart City Vision
Smart city initiatives are bubbling up all over Japan. Just in August 2019, Japan set up the Smart City Public-Private Partnership Platform to promote collaboration in the field, with more than 100 cities and more than 300 companies and research institutions signed up. The platform supports projects with knowledge exchange, business-matching, and closer ties between public, private and academia.
Japan is active in this space internationally too, contributing to the discussion on key issues such as inter-field data collaboration and unification of global standards. The government co-hosted the ASEAN-Japan Smart Cities Network High-level Meeting, and also took part in the Super City/Smart City Forum 2019 and the Asia Smart City Conference, among others. The decision to form the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance was done in parallel with the G20 Summit in Osaka.
In today’s world, a positive idea and data exchange is key to a competitive and rules-based global digital economy, explains Prof. Deguchi. The world needs “Data Free Flow with Trust,” or D.F.F.T., he said, referring to the Japanese proposal for all countries to accept open data flows across borders, provided this is backed by legal responsibilities to protect data, digital activities, and IP. Data solutions in one city should help others around the world, with Japan’s solutions likely applicable elsewhere.
Smart cities are windows into the future that revitalize communities by considering how to improve human living spaces and values over time.
“We need to keep in mind what is the ultimate goal here,” said Mr. Yamashita. “If we simply focus on bringing in all the latest technologies, people might be left behind. That would miss the point.”
“In a city, the priority is people.”
To learn more about Society 5.0, click here.
To learn more about Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City, click here.
To learn more about Kashiwa-no-ha Urban Design Center, click here.
To learn more about Mitsui Fudosan, click here.
To learn more about The Center for Research on Adoption of NextGen Transportation Systems at Gunma University, click here.
To learn more about the Smart City Public-Private Partnership Platform, click here.
To learn more about the Super City/Smart City Forum 2019, click here.
To learn more about Abenomics, click here.